Although they are frequently lumped together, mystery fiction and crime fiction are two very different fish. Mysteries attribute a superior logic to virtue, and turn the pursuit of evil into a civilized and often bloodless game. Crime fiction, on the other hand, acknowledges that law tends to be an attribute of power, rather than virtue, that its exercise can be messy and its boundaries ambiguous. It suggests that the protagonist, and by extension the reader, might just as easily be on the wrong side of the law as on the right. Such representation, literary or otherwise, has rather infrequently been encouraged by those who legislate such things. The myth of Robin Hood was cleaned up; that of Jesse James was made banal; the arch-criminal Fantômas was replaced by the superdetective Judex. The Hays Code set a long list of specific prohibitions for American movies, e.g., the sympathy of the audience was not to be thrown to the side of crime; revenge was not to be justified; methods of crime were not to be explicitly presented.
These doctrines were handed down in 1930 and applied in 1934. The timing was significant. It was the Depression; most Americans were looking in at money from the cold, and crime had wide appeal as an alternative. The pulp magazines were not regulated, however, and writers of the “hard-boiled” school were beginning to throw over the mechanical conventions of the mystery and to blur the distinction between good and evil. Even so, Hammett, Chandler, and the rest continued to rely upon the detective-protagonist. Their heroes, though scarred and disillusioned, were still righters of wrongs. James M. Cain, for all his melodrama and ham-fisted writing, intuitively identified with the criminal, and by doing so tapped into the popular subconscious and spotlit the sex appeal of crime. Cain’s heroes were usually square citizens who got into crime by scratching a persistent itch and having the itch multiply and turn malignant. The masochistic vicarious lure of trouble and guilt grabbed bystanders of capitalism who had the quarter to spend on a paperback.
Cain spawned a genre. The ingredients of compulsion, self-destruction, revenge, and blind chance awakened a kind of poetry in pulp writing, and in the movies adapted from it. The French, with their talent for banding and tagging, dubbed the style noir, referring not only to the dominant color scheme of the expressionist-influenced films, but also to the original roman noir, the gothic from Sade to Poe. The style’s cinematic wing has been well known stateside for at least ten years, even if few seem to have noticed it the first time around, but the novels have yet to receive their due. Most, in fact, have been out of print in English for some thirty years, although they have been preserved abroad, notably in Marcel Duhamel’s Série Noire imprint at Gallimard in Paris.
The reprinting of the work of David Goodis and Jim Thompson fills a significant gap in the continuity of postwar American fiction, a link between popular literature and the avant-garde. So many years of attention abroad and neglect at home have almost caused these writers to seem foreign, or at least expatriated. Goodis, for example, is known in the United States, if at all, as the author of Down There, which as Shoot the Piano Player became a screen hit for François Truffaut, and of The Moon in the Gutter, turned into a gigantic dud by Jean-Jacques Beineix. Nevertheless, Goodis was an archetypal American pulp writer. He had the usual Grub Street nonbiography: born (in Philadelphia), schooled (Indiana, Temple, journalism degree), and then, simply, he wrote. After an unsuccessful brush with upper-case literature, Goodis chose to write for money, or at least for the small change of western, horror, mystery, war, and adventure pulps, and then for radio serials. In 1946, after ten years of this, his novel Dark Passage was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, filmed by Delmer Daves with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and published in hardback, leading to temporary fame and a few more prestige publications. By the early 1950s, though, he was back in the ghetto of paperback originals, publishing with sleaze houses like Lion and Gold Medal, and there he stayed.
The four novels in the Zomba collection present Goodis at his most personal, which is to say his most obsessive. Goodis’s invariable plot shows his hero, unjustly accused of a crime, attempting to clear his name. The hero is punch-drunk from the ordeal, and the third-person prose takes on the tentative and repetitious rhythms of his internal monologue, so that the books seem to take place in a fog, or underwater.
The most striking is Dark Passage. In it Vincent Parry, a former bond-house clerk, escapes from San Quentin, where he has been unjustly held for the murder of his wife. He is rescued and hidden by a stranger, Irene Janney, for complex and perhaps unfathomable reasons. Chance brings Parry a friendly plastic surgeon, who revises his face, and a blackmailer, who unwittingly arms Parry for the job of finding the true killer. The Delmer Daves film was much prized by the Surrealists for the inexplicably fortuitous amour fou between the two leads, the first-person camera’s impersonation of Parry before he finds his true (Bogart) face, the bizarre, dreamlike finale which suggests a musical-comedy idea of heaven. Nevertheless, the movie only begins to suggest the poetic qualities of the novel, and not at all the nervous tremor of its prose.
Goodis looks at a thought over and over again, holding it up to show minutely different angles, building it by fractions of inches. The thought spreads like a rash; the reader wants to scream:
He remembered he hoped she would never come back and he was afraid she would never come back because there was something about her that got him at times and he wished there was something about him that got her. He knew there was nothing about him that got her and he wondered why she didn’t pick herself up and walk out once and for all. She was always talking in terms of tall bony men with high cheekbones and hollow cheeks and very tall. He was bony and very thin and he had high cheekbones and hollow cheeks but he wasn’t tall. He was really a miniature of what she really wanted. And because she couldn’t get a permanent hold on the genuine she figured she might as well stay with the miniature. That was about as close as he could come to it. She was very thin herself and that was the way he liked them, thin. Very thin. She had practically no front development and nothing in back but that was the way he liked them and the first time he saw her he concentrated on the way she was constructed like a reed and he was interested. He disregarded the eyes that were more colorless than light brown, the hair that was more colorless than pale-brown flannel, the nose that was thin and the mouth that was very thin and the blade-line of her jaw. He disregarded the fact that she was twenty-nine when she married him and the only reason she married him was because he was a miniature of what she really wanted and she hadn’t been able to get what she really wanted.
But Goodis retains a crisp pulp sense of narrative pacing, so that the story doesn’t flag while the characters are being bitten to death by memories and speculations. Goodis is also fond of dream sequences, color imagery, conversations with the dead, bits of drugstore Freud that would be laughable if they could be interpreted. As it is, they seem random and just deranged enough to be natural developments of the story.
In Nightfall (1947), the unjustly accused hero, pursued both by a gang and by the law, has to remember what he did with the gangsters’ money when he escaped from their clutches. In Down There (1956), the unjustly accused hero is a former concert pianist, lying low as piano player in a dive, watching helplessly while former acquaintances come and drag him back through what he is trying to forget. The Moon in the Gutter (1953) is a callow bit of nonsense involving a murder and its aftermath in a colorfully fake slum panorama. It doesn’t work largely because of Goodis’s failure to construct and inhabit his usual troubled, passive hero. He has no affinity for the man of action, and renders him as hollow and portentous. The real Goodis hero is a martyr specimen who has to be pushed past the breaking point in order to advance the plot, and even then retains his inner purity. This purity is so genuine that Goodis’s novels, at their best, are heartbreaking.
Jim Thompson had a career similar to Goodis’s, if somewhat longer. He was head of the Oklahoma Federal Writers’ Project during the Depression, and went on to write twenty-nine novels, mostly paperback originals, before his death in 1977. He also wrote screenplays (notably The Killing and Paths of Glory for Stanley Kubrick) as well as their inverse, novelizations (including the one for the TV series Ironside). If Goodis, in his books, represents one end of the noir equation, the innocent Justine beset by horrors, Thompson is the other, the corrupt Juliette. His novels are morally so rotten as to be of nearly clinical interest. Why is it, for instance, that in three of the four currently reprinted novels he sets up the identical situation of having one character kill two others and then make it look as though they killed each other?
Murder is an enjoyable, if compulsive, activity in Thompson’s books, like eating potato chips. Yet his novels are thoroughly devoid of either the macho posturing or the righteous pretext of duty to be found in most pulp violence. His heroes are usually cheerful and thoroughly psychotic. As Barry Gifford notes in his introduction to the Black Lizard editions, Thompson’s writing mirrors the schizoid duality of his characters, veering sharply between carefully stylized prose and penny-a-word sensationalizing. Similarly, he seems to be cheering on his protagonists, making them sympathetic, their confusion understandable, even as their killings pile up, but he cannot resist meting out punishment at the end, reserving for them the most agonizing fates. Novelists are often accused of playing God, but few have wallowed in the conceit quite as lustily as Thompson.
Pop. 1280 (1964) could almost be taken as his statement of purpose. Nick Corey is sheriff of the smallest county in Texas. He likes to sleep, eat, drink, and screw, and dislikes any kind of exertion. Most people think he is simple-minded, or at least malleable. Nevertheless, when people annoy him, he kills them, and pins the deed on someone else he doesn’t like. He remains ostensibly good natured and without a speck of doubt or remorse. Throughout the book there are scattered hints that he is considerably more canny than he makes out. These parallel an increasingly blasphemous suggestion, unveiled at the end:
Because it was all so clear to me, Christ knew it was clear: love one another and don’t screw no one unless they’re bending over, and forgive us our trespasses because we may be a minority of one. For God’s sake, for God’s sake—why else had I been put here in Potts County, and why else did I stay here? Why else, who else, what else but Christ Almighty would put up with it?
This is satire with a bludgeon, but Nick Corey is nevertheless the only one of Thompson’s killer-heroes who goes unpunished.
Pop. 1280 seems to be a farcical recasting of Thompson’s earlier The Killer Inside Me (1952). Sheriff Lou Ford shares many of Nick Corey’s traits, but his is a more straightforward version of the serial-killer case history, and the ironies are more obvious. The offhand candor of the first-person narration is a particularly convincing rendition of mass-murderer talk. A Hell of a Woman (1954) plays with James M. Cain’s patented fatal-woman theme, sticking all the misogyny up top, where it can be seen, and pawing through it with hilariously definitive overkill. The Getaway (1958) sets up a winsome male-female pair of crooks and chases them to, literally, hell. It is the best of the four because it so thoroughly camouflages itself as a routine crime book that its aberrant qualities don’t strike the reader until nearly the end, the end being a horrific fantasy that jumps the genre altogether. Thompson’s books are palpably evil. They can be as revolting as Mexican vampire movies, but with a suggestion of personal meaning that is hardly laughable. His professional deployment of likable characters, emblematic locales, and tried-and-true situations functions much like the cornball skits and platitudes of his heroes: to mask the ooze and suck of disease inside.
The noir style has roots in history. It was conceived in the Depression and came to maturity somewhere during the first Truman administration. It thrived well into the 1950s, casting long shadows on prefab housing, the exurban drift, the rise of television, and the homogenization of the American landscape. Its domain was the vista of transience and alienation: motels, luncheonettes, bar-and-grills, truck stops, bus stations, road blocks. By the beginning of the next decade, there was a new generation of consumers who took prepackaging and loss of community for granted, and saw nothing gothic looming over them. Accordingly, a new sort of criminal was needed, the kind whose operations would be clean, professional, free of both morality and melodrama. Donald E. Westlake, writing as Richard Stark, published his first “Parker” novel, The Hunter, in 1962.
Westlake is the author of dozens of novels, mostly crime, under various names. The ones bylined “Westlake” are usually humorous, and generally too cute. The books by “Tucker Coe” are earnest, psychologizing cop-studies. Those by “Richard Stark,” however, are dead-pan, lean to the point of minimalism, and sublimely unconcerned with right or wrong, or with much of anything other than efficiency. The hero, Parker, is a professional thief. He has no first name; he lives in a permanent state of transience in resort hotels; his personality is kept to the zero degree. His jobs are simply a business, and presumably not of much interest in themselves, except as a continuous background to the series. The novels are about unwelcome disturbances to this routine, and Parker’s restoration of order.
In Parker’s world there is no good or evil, but simply different styles of crime. There is no law, so Parker cannot be caught, but merely injured or delayed. The subversive implication is not that crime pays, but that all business is crime. Among the Homeric epithets that follow Parker from book to book is: “He had to be a businessman of some kind. The way he looked, big and square and hard, it had to be a tough and competitive business; used cars maybe, or jukeboxes.” He is a loner, competing with conglomerates (the syndicate) and fending off marginal elements (psychotics, amateurs). He has no interest in society except as a given, like the weather, and none in power. He is a freebooter who acquires money in order to buy himself periods of vegetative quiet.
Parker watches television when he needs to think. That is, he turns on the set and sits in front, letting cartoons and game shows wash over him for twelve or twenty hours at a stretch. His entire life, on or off the job, takes place in this hectic void. The affectless prose is crowded with nothing:
The room was hollow, muffled, empty of people, with no one standing next to the door near the podium containing the book for visitors to sign, and no one sitting on the maroon mohair sofas in the corner alcoves…. There was no paper in the electric typewriter on the side desk, nothing disrupting the bare neatness of the main desk, no coat or hat on the coatrack in the corner…. No face showed in the windows, and no car was parked at the curb.
Parker doesn’t make small talk, doesn’t seem to eat, drinks only when strategy calls for it, and takes sex as a specific tonic when the job is done. Were it not for the indeterminate factors, his life would be as blank as a Donald Judd cube.
The Hunter begins the series with Parker reduced even further, his cover broken and his routine leveled. A former colleague, in collusion with Parker’s wife, had hijacked a job, murdered the others (including Parker, or so they thought), and gone away with the take, using it to pay off a syndicate debt. The book follows Parker as he systematically goes about recovering the money from the Mafia (presented as an anonymously correct, Anglo-Saxon corporation). The film version, John Boorman’s 1967 Point Blank, takes major liberties with the plot but brings out the latent modernism of the series. It is all noon light and hard edges, in striking contrast to the shadows and melancholy of film noir. Lee Marvin walks with dead impersonality through a science-fiction landscape of high-rises and psychedelic nightclubs, his footsteps ringing out of context as incidental music. The flashbacks are treated with the deliberate artificiality of beer or after-shave commercials. The emotional high point is a fight between Marvin’s character and Angie Dickinson’s in which she runs through an ultramodern house turning on all the appliances as he follows turning them off.
The novels are never quite so self-concious. They are thrillers, presumably intended for the kind of largely male audience that currently reads the Destroyer or Executioner series. Ironically, it is their cold harshness that makes them transcend the genre, and Westlake/Stark’s occasional attempts at color and wit (via mouthpiece characters) only compromise their integrity. Parker is a brilliant invention, but he is so slate-gray that the author’s concentration flags, and there are just so many possible variations on the basic plot. Still, what chiefly distinguishes Westlake, under whatever name, is his passion for process and mechanics, so that even his tawdriest structures come with automatic transmissions.
Nearly every one of the sixteen books in the series involves some sort of betrayal and revenge, which is odd, since themes like loyalty and honor seem out of place in the world of utilitarian amorality the novels depict. Nevertheless, a version of practical ethics is smuggled in under cover of night, pretending to be merely part of the equipment of self-interest. Likewise, Parker appears to have eliminated everything from his program but machine logic, but this is merely protective coloration. He is a romantic vestige, a free-market anarchist whose independent status is becoming a thing of the past, just as his livelihood is doomed by the decline of the cash economy. The early books stage Parker’s single-handed expropriation of the Mob with dramatic inevitability. Afterward, the stakes are necessarily smaller, and with Butcher’s Moon (1974), a climactic last battle against the Syndicate, the jig is up. Like another product of the 1960s, the antiwestern, these books sound a death knell for heroic individualism and document the paving over of the frontier.
Parker’s career began as an antisocial blast, but he wound up in the monument gallery with Natty Bumppo and Sam Spade, at a time when much crime writing was reverting to impotent nostalgia. Perhaps the present trend in crime fiction can be gauged by the success of Elmore Leonard. Leonard is an admirable writer who would appear, from the kind of press he’s been getting, to have finessed his way out of the confines of genre and assumed the fallen mantle of John O’Hara as a taxonomist of society. He is both more accomplished technically and a more conventional writer than Goodis, Thompson, or “Stark.” He has a phenomenal ear for dialects and jargons and hardly less acute an eye for minute social distinctions, and uses these to construct pluralistic milieus where crimes occur almost by the way. The crime is there to provide a story; the real pleasure is documentary, but of a sort that is very different from the animated statistics of someone like Arthur Hailey. Leonard has been an honest writer, spurning facile plot formulas in favor of the ambiguous and difficult workings of character. In his books, from Fifty-Two Pickup and Unknown Man #39 to the more recent Stick and La Brava, there is no distinct separation between the straight life and the underworld; they are both job markets, and people fall into one or the other mostly by chance.
For more than two decades, Leonard silently turned out paperback originals, first westerns and then crime novels, not calling attention to himself, hidden by his discreet style. He was suddenly “discovered” a year or two ago, noisily trumpeted and repackaged, and now seems in danger of being oversold. His new book, Glitz, has come out in a blinding promotional glare that makes the title seem all too apt. This kind of buildup almost guarantees disappointment; Glitz, alas, confirms it. In this book Leonard’s eye and ear are as keen as ever, but his weaknesses, submerged in the previous novels, are all present at once and uncomfortably noticeable. There’s the same nice-guy, low-key, world-weary, frustrated-romantic hero, and this time he’s an off-duty cop with all the departmental conveniences rather than an ex-con or a reformed alcoholic. He’s been lonely for years, and suddenly women are all over him. Bad-seeming characters turn out to be noble, and much more rapidly and implausibly than ever. In fact, so many of the wise guys and enforcers are revealed as deeply OK that there has to be someone left to hiss, and this falls to the usual goat, the lowly psychopath.
The plot, too complex to summarize, is dubious enough in its premises, e.g., that the psycho should pursue the cop from resort to resort because of some look he once saw in the cop’s eyes, that the cop should pursue a young prostitute from resort to resort because of a vague paternal feeling, that the psycho should pursue the prostitute to goad the cop, etc. By the end, though, Leonard is actively cheating on it in the interest of a nice finish, something he has never before been known to do. The result is a generic product with several superior features, but, as in the kind of high-budget movie that Glitz will inevitably become, the slickness merely serves to highlight the defects. They appear less as mistakes than as signs of conscious manipulation. In turn, the sharp details and the finely tuned dialogue recede into sugar coating on a hypnotic pill.
Popular artists are, of course, expected to move product, but those at the top are more susceptible to management pressure to soothe and dull their audiences than are the lower-paid toilers below. Either way they are workers, and are generally thought of as such by everyone but scattered foreigners and specialists. Drudgery and crime have long been neighbors, in real life as well as in the fiction mills. Assembly-line workers like Goodis and Thompson let their obsessions interfere with their assigned rote production, giving their depictions of crime that much more credibility. It is not hard to imagine their books as really being about their work: Goodis protesting that he is innocent of the hack stigma and possesses a beautiful soul, Thompson loudly proclaiming that he is damned and proud of it. These days, as the consumer base broadens while opportunities shrink and the future looks increasingly small-time, crime, more than ever, cuts across class lines and merges inextricably with legitimate activity. It is therefore only just that the walls of the genre ghetto be toppled and crime introduced to mainstream subjects as a peer. Unfortunately, gentrification seldom really improves conditions in the slums; it merely makes them expensive.
March 28, 1985